With thefts still high, California Prius drivers wait months for new catalytic converters

John Jackson, a Toyota Prius owner whose catalytic converter was stolen last fall
Los Angeles resident John Jackson, a city planner, waited weeks to have the catalytic converter in his Toyota Prius replaced.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Prius drivers whose catalytic converters have been swiped are experiencing a second indignity: Thousands of owners are ahead of them in line for the same part, and the delays could stretch on for months.

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When the catalytic converter was stolen from Vanessa Reimer’s Toyota Prius in Long Beach, she thought the repair would be a simple one, taking a few weeks at most.

Then her local dealership delivered the bad news: The replacement part could take six months to arrive. Reimer, who is pregnant, may have a baby before her Prius has a new catalytic converter.

“At first, I thought there must be something I could do,” said Reimer, 32, a speech language pathologist at an elementary school, before she learned that there were 100 other drivers waiting on the same part. “But there are just too many people in the same situation.”

For several years, older Priuses have held the dubious distinction of being the No. 1 target of catalytic converter theft in California. Drivers whose converters have been swiped are now experiencing a second indignity: Thousands of Prius owners are ahead of them in line for the same part, and the delays could stretch on for months.

Thieves target hybrids because their catalytic converters have a higher concentration of precious metals compared to cars that run solely on gas. The Prius, which was the best-selling car in California a decade ago, is an easy and lucrative target, with tens of thousands still on the road.

The Times called the parts departments of a dozen Toyota dealerships in Southern California and asked the wait time for a catalytic converter for a 2011 Prius. Every service center said the part was back ordered and wasn’t immediately available. Most said the wait would be more than three months, and in some cases, as long as eight or nine.

“There’s just way too many of them getting stolen, and there are thousands on back order,” said one employee in an apologetic tone. Another said: “If you come in right now, you’re looking at the end of August.”

Corporate representatives for Toyota did not respond to questions from The Times.

Even getting a projected repair date is no guarantee, as Anwar Glasgow, 25, discovered when his catalytic converter was stolen in January. A Toyota service center in Van Nuys said the repair to his 2012 Prius would take six months, maybe less. Now they think his car won’t be ready until October.

Glasgow’s insurance will pay to have the new part installed, but won’t subsidize a rental car for longer than a month or total the inoperable Prius so he can buy something else.

“I’m screwed, to be honest with you,” said Glasgow, 25, an aspiring actor who is now walking and skateboarding 3 miles each way to his job as a waiter at a Mexican restaurant. The theft “feels like being kicked while you’re down ... it is pretty demoralizing.”

The frequency of partial theft reports for older Priuses, a category that includes the theft of catalytic converters, surged in California by almost 850% over a two-year period, according to the Highway Loss Data Institute, a nonprofit funded by the insurance industry.

There has been a “stark increase” in the number of catalytic converter thefts in Los Angeles this year, according to Police Chief Michel Moore, with 406 more reported in the first five weeks of 2023 compared with the same time in 2022.

“I am very much taken aback,” Moore told the police commission last month. The thefts can take as little as a minute, he said, and are “easy pickings” for crews searching for favored makes and models of cars.

Fed up with the thefts and the long waits for replacement parts, some frustrated Prius owners are abandoning their hybrids altogether.

Ryan Eason, 28, discovered in January that his catalytic converter had been stolen from a secured garage when he and his fiancee got in the car to go look at wedding rings.

Ryan Eason is photographed in the Arts District on March 8.
Ryan Eason’s catalytic converter was stolen from his 2013 Toyota Prius while parked in his apartment’s garage in mid-January.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

A mechanic in Pasadena got the job done in about seven weeks, much faster than the six- to eight-month estimate from Eason’s local Toyota dealership. As soon as the repair was finished, Eason drove to his parents’ house in Carlsbad and left the Prius there.

“I don’t think it’s a permanent solution,” said Eason, a lawyer. “But given that this car is a prime target, I’m just going to keep it in a safe place for now, so that I don’t have to think about it for a while.”

There are only a few catalytic converters that the California Air Resources Board has approved for use on older Priuses, including one sold by Toyota for about $1,800, and a model from Magnaflow listed at about $2,800. Both are sold out almost everywhere.

Catalytic converters have one of the longer lead times in the industry, taking four to nine months to make, said Mark Wakefield of AlixPartners, a global consulting firm that works with automotive clients.

It’s complicated to manufacture the devices, which house porous ceramic bricks coated in precious metals, and it’s hard for automakers to produce more on short notice, particularly as the industry tries to recover from supply-chain problems, Wakefield said.

When new converters do arrive, automakers must decide between putting them in new cars or sending them out on the service market, Wakefield said.

Making replacement parts for older cars is “not really the main business of the supplier,” he said. “The main business is new cars.”

Toyota doesn’t have the same wait times for all of its cars, as Mark McNeill, 46, and Nara Hernandez, 44, recently learned. The couple, who live in Silver Lake, both drive Toyotas: his a Highlander SUV, hers a Prius.

In December, the Highlander’s catalytic converter was stolen on a rainy night. The repair took three days.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed two laws Sunday that will make it harder to sell stolen catalytic converters.

In January, it was the Prius’ turn. The couple’s mechanic estimated that the repair would take five months, but after two months of waiting, the timeline became seven months.

“I don’t think I’m going to see my car for a year,” said Hernandez, adding that their mechanic said 60 other Priuses were ahead of them in line.

Getting by without two cars would be virtually impossible with two commutes and pickups and dropoffs for their two children, the couple said.

“We were forced to make a quick decision instead of waiting for better options,” Hernandez said. They decided to buy a new car, a painful financial hit right after Christmas. Once the Prius is fixed, they plan to install a protective cage around the precious new part.

John Jackson, a city planner and Toyota Prius owner whose catalytic converter was stolen.
John Jackson, a city planner and Toyota Prius owner whose catalytic converter was stolen last fall, waited weeks to have it replaced.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

In September John Jackson, a 31-year-old city planner, had his catalytic converter swiped while the car was parked on a side street in Palms. The repair took about six weeks and cost him $700, he said, including his deductible, fees and gas for a rental car, and a shield he installed in an attempt to protect the new catalytic converter.

“Now it’s happened to a few other people I know,” Jackson said. “They came to me asking what to do, and I had to tell them: ‘Look, this is the timeline. You’re going to be without a car for months.’”

Jackson said he’s leaning toward an electric car when he finally replaces his black 2011 Prius, in part because cars without gasoline motors don’t have catalytic converters to steal.

In the interim, Jackson said, automakers should do more to try to prevent these thefts, including etching catalytic converters with vehicle identification numbers to discourage illegal resales.

One bill introduced last year in Sacramento would have required that car manufacturers do just that. The bill, sponsored by the L.A. County district attorney’s office, failed in the Assembly.

Two other laws that took effect Jan. 1 require recyclers and junk dealers to keep proof their catalytic converters were obtained legally, and bar people from purchasing the devices from anyone other than authorized sellers.

In Los Angeles, it could soon be illegal to possess a catalytic converter without proof of ownership, such as a bill of sale or a note from the previous owner.

A man in a baseball cap lies on the ground and uses a tool on the underside of a car as a woman kneels nearby and looks on.
LAPD Det. Mario Santana (left), helped by Det. Lisa Nguyen, etches a vehicle identification number onto a car’s catalytic converter as a preventive measure against theft at a free event in 2022.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

The City Council voted 8 to 4 on Tuesday to tentatively approve an ordinance that would make the violation a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $1,000, up to six months in jail, or both. The ordinance is slated for a second vote in April.

Similar laws have been adopted in other Southern California cities, including Desert Hot Springs, Mission Viejo, Irvine and West Hollywood.

San Fernando Valley Councilman John Lee said LAPD officers have complained that it is “near impossible to hold catalytic converter thieves accountable for their crimes.” Tracing such a device back to its owner, and proving someone holding the device was involved in the theft, can be tricky.

Reimer of Long Beach, who faced the prospect of being without a car during her entire pregnancy, had a mechanic install a catalytic converter that isn’t approved by the California Air Resources Board. The fix cost her $600, she said, and saved her hundreds of dollars in ride-share fees.

But the vehicle won’t pass its smog check this summer without a Toyota converter. So she’ll have to go back to the mechanic — assuming the part comes in on time.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.


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